Understanding the Structure and Agency Debate in the Social Sciences by Sherman Tan (2011)


(This originally appeared in Habitus [Department of Sociology, Yale University] 2011, 1)

Sherman Tan
How should we, as social scientists, best comprehend the nature of social life and orga- nization? Are individuals in control of their own actions and destinies, or are they merely (and unconsciously) subject to particular social circumstances which determine their behavior? In other words, do human beings possess some degree of autonomy over their actions, or are they com- pelled to obey powerful “social forces” which exert control over them? All in all, these conten- tious questions form the basis for what has come to be known as the “structure-agency” debate in the social sciences. These sociological discussions are especially important, given that they are representative of certain (more fundamental) philosophical concerns, for instance, that of free-will, choice, and determination in human life and conduct. Also, it is equally crucial to recognize that these issues are implicated (and implicit) in social scientific research across a vast range of disci- plines. Over the years, both sociologists and anthropologists have been captivated by the debate; correspondingly, they have developed a myriad of theoretical perspectives which seek to address these concerns.
This essay attempts to describe and understand the different (and conflicting) positions held with regards to the structure-agency question. To do so, it is necessary to outline the histori- cal trajectories of this debate, beginning with classical social thinkers before going on to examine various contemporary theoretical insights. Essentially, there are three broadly discernible positions on the structure-agency issue:
(1) On one hand, some social theorists have suggested a vision of the world where powerful “structures” are dominant and responsible for orchestrating the conduct of human individuals. The example par excellence here is Emile Durkheim’s theoretical work which emphasizes the impor- tance of “social facts” and rules which structure and organize human behavior. This essay will suggest that these theoretical perspectives greatly impacted social-anthropological research: in par- ticular, the influence was especially evident in the ethnographic work pursued by A. R. Radcliffe- Brown, Meyer Fortes, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard in their analyses of small-scale
social orders.

(2) On the other hand, others have been eager to stress the primacy of individual judgments, deci- sions,andactions-inotherwords,emphasizinghuman“agency”insociallife.Theviewadopte3d7
here is that individuals, to a large (or complete) extent, possess the ability to plan, define, under- stand, organize, and execute their actions. Correspondingly, this perspective suggests that society is a result of human creativity, rationality and autonomy; it is an aggregation of individual action (and autonomy) that “makes up” society. This essay will show that such sentiments are present in Max Weber’s social-theoretical work, which stresses human intentionality and calculation in the process of social action. Additionally, this essay recognizes that “rational choice” and “transac- tional” approaches in social anthropology have been ardent proponents of these perspectives. In particular, Fredrik Barth’s ethnographic fieldwork and analyses will be examined in greater detail as an excellent example of research that has been influenced by these theoretical trends.
(3) A third discernible position is adopted by scholars who have attempted to reconcile both of the perspectives mentioned above. More specifically, they have presented theoretical frameworks that acknowledge the dialectical relationship between “structure” and “agency”; in their view, both “structures” and human “agency” are important in the explanation of social life and organization. This has been the approach adopted more recently by a number of contemporary social theorists. In particular, this essay will discuss Anthony Giddens’ work on “structuration theory” as well as Pierre Bourdieu’s views on a “theory of practice”.
To some extent, positions (1), (2) and (3) follow a particular temporal trajectory. While (1) appeared to be dominant in sociology and social anthropology for some time, (2) arose as a challenge to (1) -as an attempt to rehabilitate the role of human agency in understanding society. Subsequently, position (3) is an effort to reconcile the insights suggested by (1) and (2), and offer a “middle-ground” solution to the structure-agency debate. Of course, this should only be taken as a general trajectory in mapping the proceedings of the structure-agency debate, and it would be an oversimplification to claim that there was absolutely no instance where (1), (2) and (3) simul- taneously existed in the social sciences. Additionally, other qualifications need to be made. For the purposes of this essay, the homogeneity of each of the three positions expressed here has been assumed. However, in actual fact, one must acknowledge the possibility of various disagreements and conflicts within each of the positions, as well as certain similarities and consensus among them.
On the whole, this essay will argue that at present, the structure-agency debate is far from over. In fact, a substantial amount of criticism has been directed at the theoretical frameworks proposed by contemporary social scientists such as Giddens, and Bourdieu. At the same time, this essay suggests that instead of claiming that any one of them have formulated the “best” account in which to reconcile “structure” and “agency”, it is perhaps more appropriate to recognize the utility of each of their different conceptions through constant attempts to apply their views in empirical studies of social organization. Indeed, attempts to demonstrate the usefulness of their frameworks should be grounded in actual research rather than premised on (endless) theoretical disagreement.
Having outlined its objectives and proposed arguments, this essay will now describe and explain, in relation to theory and research, the first of three positions presented above, namely, that of an emphasis on powerful “structural” forces which determine individual conduct. Within the context of this discussion, This position may be more simply regarded as the “structural-emphasis” perspective.
Position (1) - The “structural-emphasis” perspective
According to Barnes (2001:344), the sociology “established in the English-speaking world half a century or so ago” had commonly held that there were “external coercive powers [and] social pressures” involved in the constitution of society. More specifically, he went on to explain that the logic and theory of social research was such that:
Curiosity was satisfied by appeal to [norms and rules] as externalities. What is making people act thus and so? They are conforming to norms. Why is there an overall pattern in their actions? Because there is an overall pattern in the norms. What is the pattern? It is that of the social system or structure of the society in question; and by reference to that system or structure, wherein rules and norms are ordered around statuses to form social institutions, actions may be understood and explained. (Barnes 2001:344)
Indeed, this account of “social structure” consisting of objective and external constraints on human beings was evident in Emile Durkheim’s theoretical vision at the beginning of the 20th century. His sociological theory suggests that individuals are subject to real and external “social facts” which constrain and define their behavior. In Rules of the Sociological Method, Durkheim (1938 [1895]:10) emphasized that “a social fact is to be recognized by the power of external coercion which it exercises [...] over individuals”. For example, social facts can be seen as “collective habits find[ing] expression in definite forms [like] legal rules, moral obligations, popular proverbs, social conventions, etc” (Durkheim, 1938 [1895]:45). In essence, these collective habits are
apart from the individual acts to which they give rise, [...] have a permanent existence and do not change with the diverse application made of them [in individual acts], they constitute a fixed object, a constant standard within the observer’s reach, exclusive of subjective impressions and purely personal observations. (Durkheim 1938 [1895]:45)
This suggests that in Durkheim’s view, society is a reality “irreducible to individual psychology and behavior” -essentially, “explanations of even the most individualistic appearing acts [are]
a function of impersonal laws and forces characterizing social wholes” (Fay 1996:51). On the whole, the structure of society exists above and over human action, and it is the former which exerts a unidirectional force on the latter.

It is also important to point out the functionalist aspects of Durkheim’s vision of the social world. It is often claimed that Durkheim’s theoretical work presents society “as though it were a single-unified entity in the way that the human body is an integrated assemblage of organic parts” (Hughes et al. 1995:205). This organic analogy, inherited from his predecessor, Herbert Spencer, stresses the “harmony and continuity of society” and how “parts of society, [such as] institutions and practices, contribute to holding society together and keep it going” (Hughes et
al. 1995:206). In Durkheim’s (1933 [1893]) own words, social solidarity is maintained by means of “repressive and restitutive sanctions” which punish deviations from the social order and to “re-establish what had been disturbed by putting it back into its normal state”. Therefore, not only is society “structured” and exerting powerful forces on individuals, its mechanisms (inclusive of rules, sanctions, conventions, obligations, etc) function in such a way as to
sustain its given struc- ture.
Subsequently, this kind of structural-functionalism was especially influential, particularly among a number of social anthropologists. Through their ethnographic research, the Durkheim- ian theoretical perspective on the social world was simultaneously reflected and validated. For example, Durkheim’s influence is especially evident in A. R. Radcliffe-Brown’s ethnographic fieldwork on Australian Aboriginal tribal communities. In establishing his theoretical framework, RadcliffeBrown’s commitment to structural-functionalism is expressed:
[...] following Durkheim and others, I [Radcliffe-Brown] would define the social func- tion of a socially standardized mode of activity, or mode of thought, as its relation to
the social structure to the
existence and continuity of which it makes some contribution. Analogously, in a living organism, the physiological function of the beating of the heart, or the secretion of gastric juices, is its relation to the organic structure to the existence or continuity of which it makes its contribution. [emphasis mine] (Radcliffe-Brown 1940:10)
As such, Radcliffe-Brown believes in social mechanisms which allow for the continued reproduc- tion of any given social-structural system. More importantly, in analyzing the kinship structure of the tribal communities, Radcliffe-Brown argues that
we have an example of a society in which the very widest possible recognition is given to genealogical relationships [...] these relationships are made, in Australia, the basis of an extensive and highly organized system of reciprocal obligations [...] In native Australian society it regulates more or less definitely the behavior of an individual to every person with whom he has any social dealings whatever. [emphasis mine] (Radcliffe-Brown 1930:43)
Again, in his overall conclusion, Radcliffe-Brown (1930:63) explains how
[in his] general survey of the forms of social structure in Australia [...] one of the tasks of culture is to organize the relations of human beings to one another. This is done by means of the social structure and the moral, ritual and economic customs by and in which that structure functions. But another task of culture is to organize the relation of man to his environment. In Australia this involves a system of customs and beliefs by which the hu- man society and the natural objects and phenomena that affect it are brought into a larger structure [...] The function of much of the myth and ritual is to maintain or create this structure. [emphasis mine]
Therefore, it is clear that Radcliffe-Brown’s research confirms Durkheim’s theoretical view of powerful influences on individuals by means of an external social structure. In his fieldwork, he suggests the efficacy of customs and obligations due to individuals’ positions in a larger kinship system, to bring about certain regulations on these persons’ behaviors. And most certainly, he em- phasizes the stability and continued perpetuation of that particular structure, in the same way that Durkheim does. Interestingly, he extends the efficacy of “structure” to more than just individu- als -Radcliffe-Brown also considers natural objects and phenomenon to be subject to operative systems of customs and beliefs. This can be seen as a broadening of the scope of application of
Durkheim’s ideas concerning powerful and determining structural forces.
Another instance of Durkheimian theoretical perspectives being validated by social-an-

thropological research is visible in Meyer Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s fieldwork in Africa. In short, their analysis of socio-political systems in the region suggests that
African society [operates] in the frame of a body of interconnected moral and legal norms[,] the order and stability of which is maintained by the political organization. Af- ricans, [...] do not analyze their social system; they live it. They think and feel about it in terms of values which reflect, in doctrine and symbol, but do not explain, the forces that really control their social behavior [emphasis mine] (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940)
Once again, the picture that emerges is one which emphasizes that individual action is dependent on a compelling social force and organization beyond human agency. In this respect, Fortes and Evans-Pritchard’s work is quite similar to that of RadcliffeBrown’s: taken together, both their ethnographic studies suggest that individuals are subject to coercive social structures, affirming the Durkheimian-type “structuralfunctionalist” sociological vision. It is precisely this portrayal of individuals as merely passive recipients of social (and structural) determinations that eventually came to be rejected by perspectives arguing for the agentive efficacy of human beings. This essay will now examine some of these starkly different theoretical inclinations and research work in greater detail.
Position (2) - The “agency-centric” perspective
Sztompka (1994:30) traces how sociology, at least until the late 1960s, was dominated
by the “Durkheimian problem” -a belief in the “self-regulating system” of “structural constraints” which “determined human conduct”. Following this period, he describes a renewed theoretical interest in the “Weber problem” -an emphasis on “human action instead of social structure as the main object of research”, focusing on “the analysis of intimate, everyday interactions” (Sztompka 1994:30). Clearly then, the “agency-centric” perspective came about as a reaction to the “struc- turalemphasis” of the previously mentioned position. In order to rehabilitate the role of individual efficacy and suggest that humans can actively decide on the courses of actions they wish to pursue, social scientists became especially interested in the theoretical views of Max Weber.

In his exposition on sociological theory and method in Economy and Society (1922), We- ber places the focus of social-scientific inquiry on the acting (and active) individual. In particular, he proposes to
[...] speak of ‘action’ insofar as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to his behavior -be it overt or covert, omission or acquiescence. Action is “social” insofar as its subjective meaning takes account of the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course. (Weber 1978 [1922]:4)
In this sense, Weber is suggesting that sociologists should focus on the “rational, goal-directed activities of individuals [emphasis mine]” (Gordon 1991:477). In his view, the task of the sociolo- gist is to reveal the rationalizations of the individual in any given situation, taking into account the “interpretive understanding” (Verstehen) of social actors positioned in various contexts of action
(Weber 1978 [1922]). More specifically, for Weber,
[...] the particular act has been placed in an understandable sequence of motivation, the understanding of which can be treated as an explanation of the actual course of behavior. Thus for a science which is concerned with the subjective meaning of action, explanation requires a grasp of the complex of meaning in which an actual course of understandable action thus interpreted belongs. [...] even where the processes are largely affectual, the subjective meaning of the action, including that also of the relevant meaning complexes, will be called the intended meaning [...] [we shall speak of] intention in this sense in the case of rationally purposive action. [emphasis mine] (Weber 1978 [1922]:9)
From these excerpts, it is clear that Weber aimed to explicate the reasons, intentions and reflex- ive deliberations of social actors, and he believed that this could only be achieved by examining the salient “meanings” which were intrinsically involved in any given social situation. On the whole, the Weberian view of the social world differs greatly in comparison with the Durkheimian perspective. For Weber, there is a theoretical emphasis on “agency” rather than “structure”; in fact, he does this by suggesting that individuals reason and decide on certain actions through micro- level processes of interaction and meaning-orientation. The individual is not a static entity who is inscribed on by powerful social forces, rather, he/she is a dynamic, rational, and motivated actor in any given social context.
Another theoretical perspective which stresses the “agency” aspect is that of “rational choice” approaches in the social sciences. According to Baert and da Silva (2010:127), rational choice theory (or RCT) fundamentally
assume[s] intentionality. Rational choice explanations are indeed a subset of so-called ‘intentional explanations’ [which] do not merely stipulate that individuals act intentionally; rather they account for social practices by referring to beliefs and desires of the individuals involved [and they] are often accompanied by a search for the unintended (or so called ‘aggregation’) effects of people’s purposive action.

Additionally, other than intentionality, RCTs also assume rationality:
By rationality, it is meant, roughly speaking, that, while acting and interacting, the individual has a coherent plan, and attempts to maximize the net satisfaction of his or her preferences while minimizing the costs involved. Rationality thus implies ‘the as- sumption of connectedness’, which stipulates that the individual involved has a complete ‘preference ordering’ across the various options. (Baert and da Silva 2010:128)
All in all, RCTs, while not necessarily influenced by the Weberian theoretical vision, nonetheless share certain similarities with the latter. Again, the focus is on the individual instead of the “social structures” above and over him/her, and the emphasis is on the ability of individuals to contem- plate and rationalize in their pursuit of action. However, it should be noted that “Weberian action theorists [...] are keen to distance themselves from any form of economic reductionism”, includ- ing certain perspectives held by RCTs which represent “the subordination of homo sociologicus to homo economicus” (Baert and da Silva 2010:125). In other words, Weber’s sociological theory does not necessary endorse RCT arguments that man’s action is essentially and fundamentally driven by a maximization of economic profit. Yet, for the purposes of this discussion, the similari-
ties between between RCT and Weber’s theoretical work in suggesting “agency-centric” views must be emphasized. A good example of the application of RCT to research is evident in Fredrik Barth’s social-anthropological work. In his analysis of cultivation activities in the society of the Fur, a village-dwelling population in the Dafur province of Sudan, he found that
the strategic constraints of social life [...] enter and affect behavior: people’s activities are canalized by the fact of competition and cooperation for valued goods with other persons and thus by the problems of adapting one’s behavior to that of others, themselves predic- tive and adaptable. (Barth 1967:665)
More specifically, with regards to economic-productive activities within the familial unit, he explains how
One may hypothesize a persistence of values in [...] different situations: (a) a preference for husband-wife autonomy, and (b) a preference for the minimization of effort in produc- tion. [...] Where effective production can be pursued individually, persons will be able simultaneously to maximize both interests. Where pooling of labor in orchards gives great returns with limited effort, this allocation on the balance gives the greatest advantage to both spouses. [...] In this example, then, we find that change in household form is gener- ated by changes in one variable: the relative advantage of joint production over separate production. [emphasis mine] (Barth 1967:667)
All in all, it is clear that Barth emphasizes individuals’ ability to understand and calculate the util- ity of different courses of action before pursuing them. He concludes by re-iterating his belief in a rational choice approach to understanding social behavior; Barth (1967:668) suggests that
The aggregate patterns that can emerge in the population will thus be shaped by the fact of competition and the constraints of strategy. To depict these constraints on actors and the way they will determine the aggregate pattern of choices in a population, we need models in the tradition of a game theory.
Therefore, on the whole, it can be concluded that Barth’s work reflects as well as offers corrobora- tion for RCT approaches in the social sciences. Having examined both the “agency-centric” posi- tion, and in the previous section, the “structural-emphasis” perspective, this essay will now look at more recent theoretical trends which have attempted to bridge “structure” and “agency”. With regards to this endeavor, two especially prominent frameworks stand out among others: Anthony Giddens’ work on “structuration theory” and Pierre Bourdieu’s views on a “theory of practice”.
Position (3): Attempts to bridge “structure” and “agency”
Anthony Giddens cogently sums up the social-theoretical work previously done, before his introduction of structuration theory. In short, he explains that
In interpretative sociologies, action and meaning are accorded primacy in the explica- tion of human conduct; structural concepts are not notably prominent, and there is not much talk of constraint. For functionalism and structuralism, however, structure (in the divergent senses attributed to that concept) has primacy over action, and the constraining qualities of structure are strongly accentuated. (Giddens 1984:2)
As such, he set out to understand “how the concepts of action, meaning and subjectivity should be specified and how they might relate to notions of structure and constraint” (Giddens 1984:2). In this sense, Giddens’ intentions were to construct a coherent framework with which “structure” and “agency” can be both captured (in an account of social life) and systematically analyzed.
At risk of simplification, the central concept in Giddens’ work is that of the “duality of structure”. For him
Crucial to the idea of structuration is the theorem of the duality of structure [...] The constitution of agents and structures are not two independently given sets of phenomena, a dualism, but represent a duality. According to the notion of the duality of structure, the structural properties of social systems are both medium and outcome of the practices that recursively organize. (Giddens 1984:25)
Therefore, Giddens sees “structure” and “agency” as an iterative process. While individuals act under given social structures and circumstances, they are, at the same time, re-creating those very same structures. He even suggests that
Structure is not ‘external’ to individuals: as memory traces, and as instantiated in so- cial practices, it is in a certain sense more ‘internal’ than exterior to their activities in a Durkheimian sense. (Giddens 1984:25)
On the whole then, what he argues is that positions focusing on merely “structure” or “agency” have performed “an illegitimate form of reduction, deriving from a failure to adequately conceptu- alize the duality of structure”. Essentially, he asserts that structuration theory takes a step forward in the structure-agency debate by explaining how “the moment of the production of action is also one of reproduction in the contexts of the day-to-day enactment of social life” (Giddens 1984:26).
Giddens’ work has received mixed reviews. On one hand, sociologists like Jonathan Turner (1986:977), have suggested that structuration theory has “offers [...] much insight into the basic properties and dynamics of human action, interaction, and organization”. He also explains that Giddens’ theory “has far more potential than Giddens would admit for developing a natu- ral science of society -that is, for articulating the abstract laws that govern the operation of our universe”. It is evident that Turner sees structuration theory as a potentially comprehensive and beneficial set of assertions about the workings of the social world.
Sewell (1992), similarly, positively acknowledges the contributions of structuration the-
ory. To him, Giddens’ work is on the right track; in particular, he believes that Giddens’ “notion of the duality of structure underwrites theoretically what social historians (and in recent years many historical sociologists and historical anthropologists as well) do in practice” (Sewell 1992:5). More specifically, he is in agreement with Giddens’ on (i) the idea of “dual structures” -how “human agency and structure, far from being opposed, in fact presuppose each other [author’s emphasis]” and also on (ii) the understanding that “structure must be regarded as a process, not as a steady state” (Sewell 1992:4). Clearly, he takes Giddens’ formulation of the relationship between “struc- ture” and “agency” to be a cogent and well-developed one, and understands structuration theory to have been (and to continue to be) ultimately useful for sociological and anthropological research.
However, on the other hand, Giddens’ structuration theory has also been subject to a number of scathing criticisms. For instance, Bryant (1992) has argued that structuration theory has not provided a clear enough specification of its principles, and as such, is potentially difficult to test and apply to actual empirical research. He explains that Giddens provides “neither positive nor normative theories, but fashions concepts that [merely] satisfy the desiderata of social theory (such as the simultaneous avoidance of objectivism and subjectivism)” (Bryant 1992:141). For example, he suggests that it is “hard to know how to move from such structures of rules and resources to actual, more systematic patterns of interaction” within the framework of structuration theory (Bry- ant 1992:141). This charge against Giddens’ model of structure and agency was initially raised
by McLennan (1984:125), who claimed that his framework failed to specify concretely “which structures,
what agencies, in what sequences go to make up the object of enquiry of social theory [author’s emphasis]”.
Others, like Archer (1982), have also pointed out the inherent flaws of Giddens’ structura- tion model. In particular, she suggests that
the ‘duality of structure’ itself oscillates between the two divergent images it bestrides - between (a) the hyperactivity of agency, whose corollary is the innate volatility of society, and (b) the rigid coherence of structural properties associated, on the contrary, with the essential recursiveness of social life. (Archer 1982:459)
Therefore, Archer (1982:460) argues that Giddens
rather than transcending the voluntarism/determinism dichotomy, the two sides of the ‘duality of structure’ embody them respectively: they are simply clamped together in a conceptual vice.
Clearly, her disagreement with Giddens revolves around the fact that his idea of a recursive loop (of structure into agency and vice versa) makes it difficult “to discover what aspects of social organization govern the interconnection between the two, [thus] avoiding concrete propositions
of this type” (Archer 1982:461). On the whole, Archer’s work implicitly concurs with Bryant and McLennan’s criticisms concerning the lack of precision in the structuration model, but more than that, she takes it a step further by pointing out that Giddens’
conflation of the concepts of structure and agency is to blame for this theoretical handicap. In sum, all these critiques of structuration theory essentially highlight inadequacies in its attempts to articulate how “structure” and “agency” are interrelated.
Apart from Giddens’ work on structuration theory, another more recent attempt to con-
nect “structure” and “agency” within a coherent framework is that of Pierre Bourdieu’s “theory of practice”. According to Swartz (1997:9), Bourdieu wishes to
integrate micro and macro, voluntarist and determinist dimensions of human activity [...] into a single conceptual movement rather than isolated as mutually exclusive forms of explanation.
This theoretical endeavor is not unlike what Giddens’ tried to achieve with structuration theory. However, with regards to Bourdieu’s work, the difference lies in how the structural and agentive dimensions of social life are understood; within his work, the concepts of “habitus” and “field” are developed precisely to fulfill this purpose. According to Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992:126),
To speak of habitus is to assert that the individual, and even the personal, the subjective, is social, collective. Habitus is a socialized subjectivity. [...] [it is] the durable and trans- posable systems of schemata of perception, appreciation, and action that results from the institution of the social in the body (or biological individuals) [...] [emphasis mine]
Another way of viewing habitus, is to understand that
Being the product of history, [habitus] is an open system of dispositions that is constantly subjected to experiences, and therefore constantly affected by them in a way that either reinforces or modifies its structures. (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:133)
Additionally, Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992:97) define a field as
a network, or a configuration, of objective relations between positions. These positions are objectively defined, in their existence and in the determinations they impose upon their occupants, agents or institutions [...]
Essentially then, they explain that “habitus” and “field” are connected in a dialectical relationship, in which there is
a relationship of conditioning [where] the field structures the habitus, which is the prod- uct of the embodiment of the immanent necessity of a field, [and] a relationship of knowl- edge or cognitive construction [in which] habitus contributes to constituting the field as
a meaningful world, a world endowed with sense and value, in which it is worth invest- ing one’s energy. [...] [Therefore]
social reality exists , so as to speak, twice, in things
and in minds, in fields and in habitus, outside and inside of agents.
And when habitus encounters a social world of which it is the product, it is like a ‘fish in water’: it does not feel the weight of the water, and it takes the world about itself for granted. Habitus being the social embodied, it is ‘at home’ in the field it inhabits, it perceives it immediately as endowed with meaning and interest.[emphasis mine] (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:127)
The vision of the social world that emerges from Bourdieu’s model is a complex one, more so than Giddens’ “duality of structure”. For him, “structure” and “agency” is not recursively related
in a simple manner. The entities involved, namely habitus and field, come into contact with each other as a result of a particular historical trajectory. In this sense, external structures are, as it were, inscribed into individuals’ own dispositions (habitus), and the latter is implicated when it comes into contact with those familiar fields (in which it was initially formed). As such, this is Bourdieu’s view of “structure” and “agency”: individuals act in and through their habitus in relation to given fields (agency), keeping in mind that their habitus has been conditioned by prior experiences (structure).
However, in the process of outlining Bourdieu’s theoretical framework, one might have begun to notice some of the problems it inherently runs up against. Elder-Vass (2007:328) points out that Bourdieu has been criticized for “his apparent denial of conscious decision making in the determination of human behavior, in marked contrast to most theorists of action”. Indeed, social theorists like Jeffrey Alexander have argued that Bourdieu’s notion of habitus simply reinforces the idea of structure and determination rather than agency -in fact, it seems like “Bourdieu wishes not to free up creative and interpretive action but to attach it to structures in a noninterpretive way” (Alexander 1995:135). In a way, it is unclear how much room Bourdieu leaves for agency, especially if agency is considered to be deliberative and conscious action on the part of human be- ings. If these critiques are right, Bourdieu would then appear to be suggesting a vision of the social world in which there is “more structure” and “less or no agency”.
On the other hand, some would be more sympathetic towards Bourdieu’s theoretical framework. Crossley (2001:117), for instance, explains that Bourdieu is certainly “by no means oblivious to the question of reflexivity [and deliberative action], [but] the nature and possibil-
ity of reflexivity are something of a mystery in his work”. And to be fair, Bourdieu (2000:162) himself does acknowledge moments where habitus “misfires or is out of phase”, and where actors can enter into “an instant of hesitation into which there may slip a form of reflection”. Yet, while this is a possibility, one could argue that the frequency of such occurrences is somewhat elusive in Bourdieu’s overall model -in fact, the picture presented by him suggests that habitus seems to operate successfully most of the time.

Conclusion: Future theoretical and research directions for the structure-agency debate
After examining Giddens’ and Bourdieu’s attempts to bring together “structure” and “agency”, it is clear that the structure-agency debate is far from over. Instead, one can safely say that it has taken a new turn. The debate is no longer about whether it is “structure” or “agency” that provides an explanation for social life; rather, the issue has now become: how do social sci- entists best understand the interrelationship between structure and agency? It can be claimed that this is where the most interesting debates lie -at least in view of the most recent trends in social theorizing (Marsh 2010, personal communication). At the same time, one could argue that the fundamental questions which have been of great interest to social researchers in the past (say, in the time of Durkheim and Weber), continue to be ever-so-relevant, albeit being consciously and consistently weaved together in various disciplines. Questions like ‘What are the ordered and con- stant determinants of social order?’ and ‘How can we understand individual creativity and action?’ continue to demand answers, but presently (contra previous understandings), they are no longer perceived by social scientists to be mutually exclusive concerns.
So, where do we go from here? Indeed, Giddens and Bourdieu have certainly advanced the structure-agency debate by and through their theoretical work. In short, they have suggested
some important issues with regards to the interrelationship between “structure” and “agency”. While Giddens’ has raised the concern that there may be a recursive process between structure and agency, Bourdieu’s ideas have emphasized the possibility of routinized (as opposed to reflex-
ive) action in an account of “agency”. Regardless of whether one agrees with these insights on a
theoretical level, both Giddens and Bourdieu’s work have been undoubtedly useful in raising these issues, which should be tested and applied to actual research in specific social contexts. In particu- lar, Bourdieu’s framework has been put to the explanatory test -in fact, Bourdieu himself applies the notions of habitus and field to an analysis of education, class distinction (and segmentation), and artistic taste. As such, this essay suggests that more empirical research should be done to fur- ther theorists conceptualizations of the structure-agency interrelationship. In essence, the cogency of Giddens and Bourdieu’s views will only be ascertained through their explanatory utility for con- crete social situations.
On the whole, it is clear that the structure-agency debate in the social sciences has come a long way since earlier theoretical views and empirical research. This essay has shown that, within the historical trajectory of this debate, theoretical developments have largely influenced actual research, especially with regards to the ethnographic fieldwork being carried out in small scale societies. It is important to acknowledge that the structure-agency debate can be advanced by means of comprehensive communication between theoretical endeavors and their concrete ap- plicability to research work. In conclusion, instead of only pursuing the structure-agency question on a theoretical level, social scientists should attempt to operationalize social-theoretical concepts in their empirical research to demonstrate their viability for a comprehensive understanding of society. To echo Margaret Archer (1996), dealing with questions of structure and agency demands a confrontation of “the most pressing social problem of the human condition”. Indeed, this debate continues to be relevant today, and remains the bedrock of all scientific inquiry into the nature and conditions of social organization, order, control, and action.
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